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Marketing Quality Rural Tourism

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LEADER I and tourism: some examples

The lilting lands of Alentejo
document type: case study
keywords: tourism, methodology, heritage
source: LEADER technical dossier
last update:3/95

Alentejo, the biggest province in Portugal, may be little known as yet, but it has every intention of developing tourism and making the most of its assets: original culture, strong rural identity and American-style landscapes. This is a visit to the "Terras do Cante".

Alentejo is a vast open panorama, with wheat fields and plantations of cork oaks stretching as far as the eye can see. You leave the Nationale 8 a little after Beja and a sign with the European colours heralds your arrival in the LEADER operating area of Alentejo Centro.

Alentejo Centro has a surface area of around 3 600 km² and around 70 000 inhabitants spread between fifty or so villages. The population density is only 20 inhabitants per km², a situation aggravated by massive emigration of men - the women and children remain in the villages - to industrial centres such as Lisbon and Setubal or tourist resorts such as those on the Algarve coast. In the last twenty years, some villages have lost half of their population.

"Terras Dentro", which manages the LEADER programme, is an association set up in Spring 1991 thanks to the combined impetus of rural development partners and several municipalities in the region, principally that of Viana do Alentejo.

The group has established its headquarters in Alcáçovas, a picturesque town and the site of fifteenth century negotiations which culminated in the Treaty of Tordesillas by virtue of which the Spanish and the Portuguese carved up the New World between them. "This is one of the many historical symbols enjoyed by Alentejo and which we can use to promote the region", comments Camilo Mortagua, head of the group.

But the region has much more to offer than testimonies to the past. This part of Alentejo has considerable tourism potential just waiting to be tapped.


First and foremost, there are impressive natural sites: colourful landscapes, vast tracts of land which could be used for hunting or horse-riding, huge lakes created by the irrigation dams and suitable for water sports, etc.

Each village is an attraction in itself: housing in the traditional style has been conserved and the village is well maintained: the streets are clean and the houses are given a fresh coat of whitewash twice a year.

Alentejo, which was home to the vast Portuguese latifundia, tops this architectural heritage with innumerable castles and large patrician country houses, often abandoned because of the population drain.

If, in addition, the proximity of Evora (± 50 km) - one of the most beautiful towns in Portugal - is taken into account, then clearly all the ingredients are there for original and diversified tourism products.

However, this tourism potential is like the unassembled pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle. The first challenge facing Terras Dentro is the creation of sophisticated tourism products.

Sociability and professionalism

The area has no established tradition of playing host to tourists and accommodation capacity is limited. The actions in favour of tourism planned in the framework of LEADER therefore concentrate first and foremost on the creation or renovation of "light" infrastructures (B&B accommodation, service facilities, etc) and the training of local people, particularly young people, in tourist contact and activity organisation.

A facelift for local restaurants and bars is one of the more innovative actions in the business plan: "our aim is to ensure that visitors are fully drawn into local life" explains the head of LEADER, "which is why we have introduced this action. Achievement of this aim requires a combination of sociability and professionalism. We are encouraging restaurants to serve local products, give a high quality service and refresh their decor while preserving their traditional character."


Traditional character is a fitting qualifier for local folklore. In Alentejo, however, the highly variable climate and more especially the former social structure, bordering on feudalism, kept the region in a state of chronic under-development for many years. This situation nevertheless brought about very vibrant local folklore, the originality of which is particularly evident in the tradition of local choir singing: each village has its own choir which takes part in improvised concerts or in village fêtes. The current success of the "Bulgarian voices" or the "Corsican polyphony" - with which there are some similarities - gives a measure of the cultural potential of the Alentejo choirs. This is why the group has chosen the name "Terras do Cante" (The Lilting Lands) as the hallmark of the region's tourism products. A major cultural event, "Alentejo Maio Florido" ("Alentejo May in Bloom") has also been organised yearly since May 1993 in partnership with the local authorities and the tourism sector to put this hallmark across.

The definition of this hallmark poses a problem, for the area must carve itself an identity separate from that of the neighbouring Alto Alentejo - which has the highly attractive Parc de Sao Mamede - and from that of Evora, the much visited City of Art and History (around 650,000 visitors per year) that could stifle the tourism development potential of the LEADER area.

Off the beaten track

Terras Dentro is developing a range of tourism products which combine a stay in the area with a "discovery route". After identifying local sites, it is putting together routes on different themes (country living, architecture, horse-riding, etc.) and organising painting and choir singing classes. Several sites (farms, workshops, etc) have been transformed into small museums of rural ethnography and the craft industry (manufacture of bells in Alcáçovas, tool museum, ranch rearing corrida bulls, etc.). An old railway line has been redeveloped for a small tourism train; stations are used as tourist information offices and for the sale of local products. Horse relays and hunting areas are also being established. Tourists can visit the area in a horse and carriage.

All of this should help draw tourists from Evora to the surrounding countryside and vice-versa. Much is expected, too, of Spanish tourists: the "Lilting Lands" are on the Seville-Lisbon main road.

However, as for the other LEADER areas, tourism marketing is the crucial challenge facing Terras Dentro.

The LEADER group, which does not have the means to set up its own distribution medium (central reservation system or tour operator), has teamed up with a travel agency to create the business "Terras do Cante Promoçoes Turisticas". The latter will assume responsibility for tourism promotion of the area at national and European level.

The agency has moreover agreed to market a range of short weekend breaks for nearby customers (Lisbon and Oporto represent the main customer pool for Alentejo) and medium-length holidays (one week) incorporating Evora. It is hoped that the latter can serve as a development enhancer. Terras Dentro intends involving the town's hotel owners - interested by opportunities to lengthen tourists' stay - in the project.

International marketing of tourism opportunities in Alentejo Centro must pass through networks selling top of the range products and with a targeted clientele reached through specialised publications (hunting magazines, riding magazines, etc.).

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